When we first meet Jemima Kirke’s character Regan in the twisty Apple TV+ series “City on Fire,” she seems an elegantly capable, early 2000s-era New Yorker, the kind of woman who can juggle career, motherhood — and a cataclysmic mystery — with steely resolve. To put it another way, Regan is such a far cry from Kirke’s iconic breakthrough role as Jessa on “Girls” that she gets a showstopping monologue about how singularly not free-spirited she is.
“Jessa was probably the only character who was somewhat aspirational for people,” Kirke recalled on “Salon Talks,” because of this so-called free-spiritedness. As the show unfolded, we saw that this was not a free-spirited person. This was an erratic and impulsive performer.”
It’s been six years since “Girls” concluded, and since then Kirke has played a variety of acclaimed roles, including a strict headmistress on “Sex Education” and a charismatic author on “Conversations with Friends.” But she says, “I think people or casting directors or writers are just starting to perhaps see me as not someone who can play a version of Jessa over and over and over.”
During our conversation, Kirke opened up about the enduring appeal of Jessa, why artists are “highly critical narcissists,” and what she was really doing the night of the big 2003 blackout. And although she says she’d be “interested” to see if she could stay play a Jessa type again someday, what matters to her now most is just giving her all to whatever she’s doing. “I don’t really care what the character is,” she says. “I truly don’t. I just want to get better.” Watch Jemima Kirke on “Salon Talks” here.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
When we first meet your character, Regan, she’s going through it with her family. Tell me about who this woman is.
She is someone who has so much going on in her life before the storm even happens, that she is on autopilot as a mother and a wife and a businesswoman and all these things. She has lost a sense of herself, a sense of joy and a sense of individuality and her freedom. I think she’s doing a lot of supposed tos, and that’s what she’s always done since she was a teenager.
“Interviews are interesting. They’re sort of a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”
There’s two ways that a kid can rebel against an oppressive, rich family, like the one in the show. You could go off and become an artist on the Lower East Side and never speak to them again, or you could go and join the family business. Both of them are a way of protecting oneself from the family. It’s like it’s keeping your enemies closer, and I think that’s what she’s done. She’s trying to prove to herself and to the business that she can handle it all. It’s that typical sort of conundrum of being a woman who can do it all . . . But we can’t.
When you mention all of the different iterations that Regan has in her life, the most interesting was she’s also a sibling. You are famously a sibling. You are deeply interconnected in a public way with your parents, with your siblings. Was this something that you were interested in exploring?
It wasn’t. When I play a character, the last thing I would ever do is try to find a direct parallel. It doesn’t really work. I’ve tried it before where, “This woman’s pregnant, I’ve been pregnant before, I can relate.” That’s not where the relatability, in my opinion, should come from because that’s Jemima being pregnant or that’s Jemima as a sister. Using my experience as a sister or a sibling is not going to serve me playing Regan as a sibling. What [the character] William is to me is somewhat private, but he wasn’t necessarily my brother.
It is a cool thing to see that sibling dynamic played out in a drama in this particular way, and the way these characters are reacting to their family.
“I love my age, but it was like, ‘Oh my God, that was a long time ago.'”
It’s something quite romantic actually about these two particular siblings. There’s the tragedy, which always brings a sense of romance and longing. Obviously, when I say romance, I don’t mean incest, I just mean almost mythical and ethereal and so deeply emotional that they’re connected. They’re so connected in this way that they don’t bicker. They don’t really have a laugh about memories. We haven’t seen that yet. This is just two people who really, really needed each other and miss each other. I think it could have easily played as them being lovers in a different story.
The show also takes place in 2003. You are a New Yorker. Being brought back to that period in time around actors who are close to the same age you were at that time, did it change how you felt about the early 2000s? Pulling out the flip phones again.
Well, I wasn’t an adult then. I was 17, 18. I didn’t really get to work with [costars] Chase [Sui Wonders] or Wyatt [Oleff], but it was sort of strange replaying an adult in a time where I was doing what these characters were doing in the show and a bit of a reality check of how old I am. I love my age, but it was like, “Oh my God, that was a long time ago.” When they recreated Don Hill’s, that was really surreal because that was my favorite place to go to.
Some of this show takes place during the 2003 blackout. Where were you during the blackout?
Funny you should ask that, because I answered this question once before, and it was not received well. But it’s not a bad thing. I was actually at the J Sisters uptown, if you remember it. It was a place where you would get bikini waxes and your eyebrows done, and your eyelash extensions and everything. I was in the middle of getting a bikini wax and the lights went out and the power went off and I was like, “My God, go, quick because if that wax gets cold, we’re screwed.”
Then I had to walk home. J Sisters is uptown; I lived in the West Village. I remember at the time, people I knew were really into wearing these sort of Moroccan slippers or shoes, which I did. They didn’t have any soles on them and I walked sort of flatfooted and raw.
It was so hot that night too.
It was so hot. I was like, do I hitchhike? Everyone’s hitchhiking. I think at one point I did hitchhike. I think everyone was doing it in that moment. Everyone was helping each other, but charging as well, and I didn’t have cash. This was before Uber, so it was kind of weird that people were driving around in their Toyotas and being like, “Yeah, 40 bucks take you to the West Village.”
There is a moment in the show where you are describing another character and you say, “What is she 23? She’s all free-spirited and alive. I know who she was. I was that girl.”
You played that free-spirited, alive character that sounds a lot like Jessa from “Girls.” Going back and now being the woman who’s looking at that character with that sense of distance and also anger and also a little bit of compassion and wistfulness, how do you feel about Jessa now?
I think Jessa was probably the only character who was somewhat aspirational for people because of this so-called free-spiritedness. As the show unfolded, we saw that this was not a free-spirited person. This was an erratic and impulsive performer essentially. As the show progressed, she did become more relatable. There’s lots of ways to be insecure, and one of those ways is to act really confident, and that is really who Jessa was to me the whole time.
“Casting directors or writers are just starting to perhaps see me as not someone who can play a version of Jessa over and over and over.”
But yes, to play that role as Regan and to have that heartbreak of feeling like who she used to be was better than who she is now, is immensely, immensely painful because you can’t go back. You don’t want to go back and to feel that your husband doesn’t want who you are now is shattering.
You are moving forward on so many different fronts as a director, as an actor. You said recently that you feel like maybe you’ve reached a point in your life where you’re harder to cast and I’m curious about what it is about this time in your life, the roles that you’re looking for, the kinds of projects you want to do.
I think I said that, and mind you, interviews are interesting. They’re sort of a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling, but there’s value in that as well but there is a truth to that. I think people or casting directors or writers are just starting to perhaps see me as not someone who can play a version of Jessa over and over and over. And I have played a version of Jessa in other things. It’s what I knew how to do for a long time, and I’d actually be interested to see if I could still do it.
I just want to get better at what I do. I really do. You know, artists, we are highly critical narcissists, and so we were just watching our own performance and there are things I want to improve upon. I don’t really care what the character is. I truly don’t. I just want to get better.
I read that you teach a film class. For those who can’t go to your class, what is a gem or a movie that you really love that you wish people could see that maybe they haven’t seen?
“When I hear that someone hasn’t seen an amazing movie, I get jealous.”
There’s so many. That’s like asking me what my favorite movie is.
The reason I started teaching this class, it’s at an organization in my neighborhood called RHAP, the Red Hook Art Project. It’s for the low income housing and for the kids of the neighborhood who can’t necessarily afford to do after school stuff.
I have my own kids and I see what they watch on TV. The stuff that’s recommended to them is going to be based on what they last watched, or it’s going to be new stuff or it’s TikTok. So these classics and these amazing movies that are totally appropriate, even the ones that are appropriate for my children, they don’t have an opportunity to see them because they don’t know about them. Why would they? Unless someone told them. So I thought, how fun would it be to show a group of teenagers “Goodfellas”? Never heard of it. Never seen it. Or “The Shining.” That really excites me. When I hear that someone hasn’t seen an amazing movie, I get jealous because I’m like, “Oh, you get to watch that.” So it’s like a book club for movies. We watch it and then the next day we talk about it.
My goal is to influence these kids. The screen and watching things has become this sort of lazy thing. We are being lazy, we are numbing out. You don’t have to numb out when you watch movies. It can be as valuable as reading a book if you’re really watching. I just want them to see it. I want to see if I can get a kid to love movies as much as I do.
“Salon Talks” with actors